Let's start with me and public buses. I had probably been on a public bus a handful of times up until the age 19. In my area, we don't use them as much as it's all about having a car or a nice parents that would give lifts (thanks for that Mum & Dad).
I don't live near enough to London to have access to their bus network, unlike Cristabel that seems to have used buses ever since she learnt how to walk (maybe even before that!). So when I met Cristabel, that all changed as she took buses literally everywhere and I had to get used to them. I never had a clue though how you even get to know bus routes and understand their weird network maps of getting from A to B. I am much more used to trains and the routes for them are sooo much easier!
Background on China's Transportation System
When you are in China, you will find that many Tier 2 and below cities (even Tier 1 cities in less developed provinces) have a lack of metro services as they are still being built. Although these metro's are getting built at ridiculous speed like in Xi'an below..
Maybe in 10-15 years time, local buses in China won't be such a problem to navigate around the city, as you can just take a metro. But until then, we have some helpful advice for navigating Chinese cities by local bus.
Firstly, this guide is written for explorers and expats that are new to an area and don't have any chance of help from their hotel / hostel or a local guide. If you have any of these, the tips below will definitely help, but take up the help of anyone who has some knowledge locally first and foremost! But this will help you become more independent in a new city within China.
Our Ultimate Guide to Riding a Public Bus in China: How to Plan Your Route
Use Google Maps for locating bus stops nearby and collecting bus route numbers you can get from the nearest bus stop
Google Maps is your friend in China. It's on your mobile and accessible everywhere without a VPN (yay!). Plus you would think that the local search giant ‘Baidu' would be more up-to-date and accurate, given Google don't have a presence in China. It's actually the opposite and I don't have a clue how that even happens!?
Use google maps through this URL: http://www.google.co.uk/maps as the Google.com address doesn't work well in some provinces, good old UK works every time.
Firstly, find where you are on the map and zoom into a distance that shows up the bus icons on the map. Then click on the China bus stop that is nearest to you, this will then bring up a dialog box full of bus numbers that go from this station, see below.
You will also notice that the map has blue lines appear on the map now, here is where you need to have done some basic research beforehand. You need to zoom back out of the map, whilst keeping that dialog box open as if it closes, you will loose these blue lines on the map. Once you have zoomed out and panned around a bit to find where you want to go, you should be able to see the destination you want on the map and see if the blue line goes anywhere nearby to it. If it does, then you should write down all the bus numbers in that dialog box, because next you will have to pinpoint the specific route number that goes nearby or directly to your destination.
If you are unlucky, you will find no direct route, which means you will probably need additional work than I detail below. I will come to that bit at the end. Let's just say you have indeed found the bus stop nearby to you has a direct line to your destination or at least very close by to it.
Now you have the Chinese bus route numbers, let's get the up-to-date information on those routes from an official source
Google Maps is rubbish in terms of up-to-date bus route information. It's great for finding a nearby bus stop, but the numbers are sometimes out-of-date as China's public bus network is constantly changing depending on construction projects and changes of service. If you do live in a city with a decent bus network, they will have a website that details changes to services. So if you are an expat, you can go to these websites and find out if something has recently changed, such as Ningbo Bus Company (www.nbbus.com/en.asp).
But what is even more reliable is a little website called ‘Map Bar'. It's a Chinese website that details each cities bus numbers, along with a map of it's current route in the city. When we first arrived in China, I just used Google Maps but then after making some journey errors, came across this website and since using it across China we have ‘touch wood' not had a major hiccup, as it's ridiculously accurate.
So, now you need to look at each of those route numbers you have written down and double check that firstly, they leave from the bus stop near to you and second, to research if it is the bus route that goes nearby or directly to your destination.
Bus Line Lists in Major cities within China – How to plan your route!
If the city you are visiting isn't on the list, just create a URL yourself which is in the format (http://bus.mapbar.com/CITYNAME/line_list/) and this will give you the line list for your city.
The page will load as above and you just click and open the line number you want to view and it will show you it in Map View. As i said, you just need to search out the line route that is going to where you want to be. Then once you find it, just keep a note of it and simply go to the bus stop nearby to you and get that bus.
You will also notice that the Map View page for the buses will have additional information about that bus route. For example, you can get operating times from each end of the line and cost for the bus. To the right of this information is each stop (with the Chinese of that stop) which can be somewhat helpful at times.
When I am on the bus for the first time in a new location, I always keep Google Maps open on my phone, so that I can keep an eye on my whereabouts and then jump off at the right stop (or if i go a little bit wrong, the stop nearby to where I intend to be going!).
The guide above can be done backwards as well, meaning this guide was written to look at bus stop information that is near to where you are living, etc.. But if you want, it is sometimes better to first look at the bus stop(‘s) nearby to your destination and then work backwards and use Google Maps to see if the bus lines go to your closest bus stop (or at least nearby). Then look at Map Bar and confirm the line is still running, along with the specifics.
OK, so we have covered if Google Maps shows the line to run pretty much nearby to you and your destination, but sometimes you need to take 2 or maybe 3 buses as the bus lines don't go anywhere near each other. I find that the best way to get around this is find a main road that goes all the way up to your destination and see if a bus line goes from where you are located, to somewhere nearby to that. Then you can look at the bus stops on that main road and I guarantee there will likely be a few that go to your chosen destination. This works for me majority of the time anyway, but as it's China it can be a little hit and miss! Just make sure you work out your scales of distance on the maps before thinking that walking between stops would be OK.
If this all sounds a little too much for you and there isn't a metro system yet in your local city, then maybe a taxi would be better, read our guide on taxi's as it may help avoid you running into scams or paying too much for your journey!